The Corporate Culture Fail: How Corporate Leaders Have Fallen Asleep At The Wheel

corporate fail: how corporate leaders have fallen asleep at the wheel

Corporate culture.

The two words sit side-by-side, taunting each other like the ultimate oxymoron. Used to be, we could fake it. After all, what other options were there? Not many.

Unless you wanted to go blue collar. So we bought into it:

Then we would crack the culture nut. We would know our purpose. We would know why we’re here. Then we would all be happy.

No one wanted to admit it was all just words and theory.

But No More

With all due respect, when it comes to culture, the majority of corporate leaders have fallen asleep at the wheel. You’ve sensed it.

You’re losing sleep over it.

Now we have proof. Like in this letter from all of the talented people in your organization – who you really want to keep – telling you that it’s too late. The love is gone.

And to make matters worse, they have options galore:

All offering way more purpose than the cubicle career could ever dream of.

The golden era of the corporate career is officially over. If you don’t take action, the ripple effect could crush your organisation.

Where to Start? 

By looking where most truth dwells—inside. Be honest.

  • Do most people at your company show up mainly for the paycheck?
  • Is your office a ghost town at 5:01 p.m.?
  • Is your team utterly detached from your company mission?
  • Are you?

If so, Houston – we have a culture problem. As a leader, the prospect of repairing it alone is daunting at best; impossible at worst.

But before we jump to “solution space” (pardon the corporate jargon) hold on a minute…

What Is Culture Anyway? 

We’ve already established that most corporations do a terrible job of defining it.

Some say that, like a brand, it’s what happens at your company when no one is looking.

Forbes contributor Josh Bershin defines culture as:

“…the set of behaviours, values, artefacts, reward systems, and rituals that make up your organisation. You can feel culture when you visit a company, because it is often evident in people’s behaviour, enthusiasm, and the space itself.”

Again, similar to a brand, if you don’t take active steps to define your culture, your employees will define it for you. And it may not be pretty.

Think of it this way.

If I were to shake five randomly chosen employees at your company out of sleep, and ask them why they work there, how many would utter a reasonably inspiring answer?

Hmm, yeah. I thought so. Looks like you have your work cut out for you.

But seriously…

Can One Leader Fix a Broken Culture?

Some say yes. But the premise is again, an oxymoron.

Culture is a collective, not an individual creation. In the words of Airbnb’s Brian Chesky, culture is a shared way of doing something with passion.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella believes that employees create culture, but with their leader’s guidance. For Nadella, getting the culture right is all about striking a balance of power:

“What can a leader do to empower people and at the same time what you can do to empower yourself? I think it is to ascribe more power to others than to ourselves.”

Chesky also talks about the role of power in building a meaningful culture:

“We have the power, by living the values, to build the culture. We also have the power, by breaking the values, to fuck up the culture. Each one of us has this opportunity, this burden.”

When it comes to building a culture, both leaders caution against putting profit or technology before purpose.

Money and innovations will come and go. But your purpose should be constant – like a beacon for your people.

Again, look inside.

What Is Your Company’s Purpose? 

Just to be clear, your purpose is not achieving a 20% ROI, or a 30% increase in market share.

It’s not a key initiative, strategic plan or even a new sexy project.

Your purpose needs to express WHY you exist. It has to have an emotional charge to it. It’s why your employees are excited to get up and come to work every day.

And, according to our opening letter from disillusioned corporate employees, it’s precisely what most corporate workplaces are lacking:

“The one thing we weren’t prepared for, the thing you didn’t mention, was the nagging feeling that the work didn’t actually matter.”

Ouch. Now about that purpose…

A company’s purpose can come in all shapes and size. Maybe you exist to elevate technology for the good of all. Or to make the world a better place. If you’re still unsure, think Disney.

Their famous and memorable purpose is to make dreams come true.

Coke exists to put a Coke within reach of every person on Earth.

Toms exists to provide shoes, sight, water, safe birth and bullying prevention services to people in need.

Why are you here?

Your job as a leader is to uncover (or rediscover) that singular gem. Then share it openly and often with your people. Give them a reason, and the space, to get behind it.

Because, in case you haven’t gotten in yet, a team without purpose is a team without passion.

And when that happens, all the goals and metrics in the world won’t save you.

Ready to infuse purpose into your culture? Here are 3 tips.

1. Get Personal

Don’t just paste up a vision and values poster in the break room. Live them. Remember that, as a leader, your day-to-day actions can foster or degrade your purpose.

Not to mention, the humanity of your workplace.

A great example: one Fortune 500 company in the San Francisco Bay Area has a system in place. If an employee becomes seriously ill or has suffered a personal tragedy, the CEO is immediately informed.

Within 15 minutes, no matter what’s going on, the CEO calls that person and offers support.

Take the time to get to know your people—what makes them tick, and what they’re grappling with—both inside and outside of work.

2. Keep Talking

Again, don’t rely on posters or the intranet to do your job.

It’s critical that your people understand and connect with your company’s purpose—including its positive impact on the business, your local communities and the world.

If you’re still not convinced, a recent Deloitte survey with nearly 7,700 millennials from 29 countries revealed that 56% of participants had eliminated employers from their job search due to a mismatch in values.

Consider this your shining moment to make a difference. Keep telling your company’s story in a way that aligns with your own values.

Your people are smart. They’ll believe it if it’s true.

3. You’re Here to Serve

In work, and in life, we’re all here to serve someone.

Your customers, sure. But as a leader, focus on serving your team.

Show them how their work contributes to the big picture. Explain how every role impacts the greater organisation, and how each role contributes to the company purpose.

If you have to dive into the weeds a little bit here, so be it. But if you neglect to invest in their sense of purpose continuously, they’re left to flounder.

Unsure of whom they’re here to serve. And that’s a recipe for cultural—and financial—disaster.

I started out by saying that the love light for the corporate way of life has extinguished. But whether or not it’s gone out for good is actually up to you.

If you start now, and work with patience and purpose at the task, you just might reignite a few embers.

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Irene McConell (née Kotov)

Irene McConnell (nee Kotov) has 10 years of HR and Recruitment experience, having worked in HR for Louis Vuitton and Caltex. She is also the founder of Arielle Careers, a personal branding agency which specialises in LinkedIn profile optimisation, resume writing and online presence creation. You can connect with her via Google+

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